Although aerial drones have taken off a lot faster than their maritime and ground-based equivalent, there are some signs that the use of naval drones – especially underwater – is about to take a leap forward.
The US Navy has taken a particular interest in this area and this month, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon plans to spend $600 million over the next five years on the development of unmanned underwater systems.
Here be drones…
As illustrated by the graphic from the Pentagon’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap (above), there are two basic categories of naval drones; those designed to work on the surface and those for underwater.
Surface unmanned systems already available include the Israeli Protector, an unmanned patrol boat whose “stabilized weapon station has excellent hit-and-kill probability”, and the US Common Unmanned Surface Vessel. However a much larger and more autonomous unmanned ship is about to take to the seas. DARPA, the research arm of the Pentagon, has just announced that a 40 meters long drone – the snappily named Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) – recently dubbed the Sea Hunter – will undergo 18 months of sea trials beginning in April. This is a demonstrator version of a planned 130 meter long unmanned ship which will run autonomously for 60 – 90 days at a time. Techblog Jalopnik reports that
“Sea Hunter will go about its mission by heading to sea and searching for underwater contacts autonomously. Once it has found something or is directed to a contact by another asset nearby, it will sprint to that location and attempt to lock onto the submerged contact with its on-board sensors by continuously pinging that same contact with active sonar while using other sensors to collect data on it.”
But its research work on underwater drones – known in the military as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) or autonomous underwater vessels (AUV) – that is receiving most funding dollars. In December Rear Adm. Mat Winter, chief of US Naval Research, told an industry conference that the navy planned to field a squadron of underwater drones by 2020.
Various research projects are underway to develop underwater drones – including the creepy Ghostswimmer (see video) with perhaps the most prominent being the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV), an autonomous drone submarine that can currently run autonomously for 30 days at a time, but its planned to run for far longer in the future – up to years at a time.
As we know from aerial drones, the processing and dissemination of data and intelligence from these systems is just as important as the platform itself. To that end the Navy has just begun tests on the Common Control System (CCS) at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, no doubt to run alongside or even plug into the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) – the backbone of US military intelligence communication.
Sea drones face two big hurdles however – power and communication. It is not possible to communicate remotely with drones through the ocean in the same way that is possible with aerial drones. While various innovative ways are being suggested to deal with the power problem, autonomy is seen as the way forward for underwater drones in order to prevent the need for communication. The UN has already issued a report (The Weaponization of Increasingly Autonomous Technologies in the Maritime Environment) raising concerns about the implication of this development.
Other suggestions for future naval drones work include the Upward Falling Payload program, a proposal to pre-position static containers on the ocean floor storing weapons, drones and supplies for years at a time, and a mobile version called Hydra, a kind of “unmanned underwater aircraft carrier” according to NBC News, “stocked with drones of various kinds and capacities, [that] could travel to wherever it’s needed, deploying whatever is needed.”
Trident vs. drones?
In the UK, the use of unmanned underwater systems is currently being investigated in conjunction with France as part of a mine counter measures programme. However it is as part of anti-submarine warfare – and specifically the debate over Trident replacement – that naval drones have recently entered public arena.
Paul Ingram of the British American Security Council (BASIC) argues that alongside increased satellite capability, naval drones may well render the oceans transparent in the coming decades and submarines, such as Trident, will no longer be able to hide. He told the Independent in December:
“With satellite surveillance able to look further and further into the water, coupled with the possibility of ‘swarming’ underwater drones which are likely to become cheaper and cheaper to produce, it raises serious questions about the wisdom of putting all your nuclear weapons on board a submarine. The only purpose for doing that, it is claimed, is to make them hard to detect, which could well be impossible to achieve by the time the new Trident programme is launched.”
Those in favour of Trident replacement have been quick to repudiate this argument. Former Labour defence secretaries, John Hutton and George Robertson argued this week that
“for at least the past 50 years predictions have been made that space-based or other non-acoustic sensors will turn the oceans “transparent”, thereby rendering submarines of all types vulnerable to detection, location and attack… While we cannot rule out an eventual breakthrough, we are confident that the Successor class of Trident subs will be able to hide in the deep ocean, providing Britain with a powerful, invisible, secure and invulnerable deterrent for many years to come.”
While underwater drones are a long way behind aerial drone technology, betting £160+ billion, never mind millions of lives, on Trident both as a means of security and being invulnerable over the next 30 years is foolhardy to say the least.
But there is no ‘devil and the deep blue sea’ choice here between sophisticated drones and a nuclear arsenal. The reality is that spending billions on nuclear weapons and new military technology like underwater drones improves the security of no-one. Using such systems to directly threaten millions of lives in the case of Trident, and to erode international law and human rights as we have seem with drones over the past decade, is making the world an incredibly dangerous place.
The need to get out of the all-consuming destructive cycle of military security, where each and every new weapon system development merely provides an opportunity for the development of counter weapons ad nauseam, is growing more urgent by the day. Only those with a vested interest in the futile and destructive business – the arms corporations themselves – can possibly want it to continue.